A few months ago, someone asked me to put together a workshop about how to manage holiday stress. My first thought? This is really ridiculous. I’m not particularly good at doing that myself (ask my family about the hives outbreak of 2012- not pretty).
But I figured it would be an interesting challenge — so I took to the internet. Apparently, the best ways to beat holiday stress has something to do with incorporating a lot of citrus into your life and, of course, the magic solution to everything: take time for yourself. Humbug, I say. Imagine this: me making a mess of my bathtub as I try to take a steam shower with orange peels while my 9-year-old bangs on the bathroom door asking the whereabouts of his lightsaber. Not exactly a stress-buster.
So I started thinking about it and I realized that maybe the problem with the holidays isn’t that we feel stress. Maybe the problem is that we think that the stress is a problem. Once I realized this, the whole game changed.
Just think about it for a second. The holidays we celebrate are pretty much about three main things: 1) a stress exists (pilgrims don’t know what crops to plant, the Jews were being persecuted and didn’t have enough oil, and don’t get me started about poor Mary walking for days and days while grossly pregnant); 2) people came together to both ask for and to give help to one another (you know the stories, right?); and 3) people were happy and we celebrate that they had overcome adversity.
We celebrate these holidays every year, and without even realizing it, we end up creating stressful situations for ourselves as an inherit part of the celebration. We have a love/ hate relationship with the dozens of cookies we make and the elaborate tree decorations and light displays. We bemoan the endless hours of list writing and price checking, but at the same time, we delight in thinking about the gifts we give being unwrapped. We have that wonderful euphoric rush when the turkey and all the sides are all set out just perfectly on the Pinterest-worthy table we spent all week setting. We invite the stress and then act like it’s an unwelcome guest.
So maybe, the first step to beating holiday stress is to simply stop trying. Stress is part of the fun. (And if you’re still not sure if that’s a good idea, watch Kelly McGonigals’ brilliant Ted talk on “How to make stress your friend.”)
That being said, I think it’s fair to decide that some of stress during holidays is actually a good and necessary thing, and some of it we would be better off without. The tricky part is sorting thought the stress and making good choices about what gets to stay and what has to go. It’s like cleaning out your closet; time to set up some rules, or else you’re going to keep holding onto the little black dress from 1998 that is totally out of date and a dress size you’ll never see again. Let. It. Go.
So what stress should you keep? Ask yourself two questions. Does this source of stress also give me a sense of satisfaction? And, does this source of stress feel important and like something that I want to do? Sometimes we do things during the holidays that suck up our time and energy, and it makes no sense but we do it anyway. For me, the best example is how I take the time to line up the wrapping paper so the images overlap perfectly when I tape two ends together. This is totally pointless. Nobody notices. Unless it’s to poke fun at me for being anal-retentive. But I love getting my groove on when it’s wrapping time. I get the music going, I get all my paper and ribbons lined up, and I become a present wrapping machine. I do this for me. Remember that all important “take time for yourself” advice? THIS is how to do it. It’s in these moments of wrapping– and timing the potatoes to be done exactly when the gravy is ready — that we get to feel a sense of personal satisfaction. That’s valuable stress. Honor it.
Likewise, allow the stress that feels important and meaningful. Every year, I drive two or three weekends in a row to take my kids up to Philadelphia so that they can be in a Christmas pageant. Huge waste of time, gas and tolls money. Now that my kids are older, I just stand around and watch– so no sense of personal satisfaction there (woo hoo- I drove the car for two hours!). Instead, I feel a sense of joy in watching my kids take place in a tradition. I watch them wear the same costumes and sing the same songs, years after year, and I always tear up in the final act when the lights go down and we all sing together. It feels valuable, but I can’t really explain why. And it doesn’t matter why. It just means that the stress of leaving on time, losing a Saturday, and finding a place to stop for dinner is all stress I’m willing to embrace for the sake of this tradition.
Again, It’s just part of the fun.
But then there’s the not-fun stress. Going to the family holiday party might not be super fun because Aunt Mary always drinks too much and it’s hard to keep avoiding Uncle Larry’s grabby hands. Are you going because there is a part of it you enjoy- or are you going just because it’s not worth the guilt trip of not going? Someone said to me the other day that the problem with the holidays it that the shine a spotlight on the problems that exists the rest of the year, but we just avoid. Maybe this type of holiday stress is there to show us what changes we should start considering in our lives. That’s not a bad thing. It might be a hard thing, but sometimes hard things are also good things.
So when it comes to stress, instead of asking how to avoid it, maybe we should instead ask what purpose it’s serving. Maybe it’s there to make the experience more intense, or to remind us of our values, or to show us what might need to change, In any case, the stress itself is not something to run from, but rather something to teach us.
Shift your perspective. Have happy and stressful holiday season!!!